New Year Resolutions and the Zen of Quitting Smoking

Dr. Christina Vlahopoulos, BscH, ND, MPH cand.

When the calendar rolls over to the New Year, many think about creating healthy habits or trading old habits for new ones. It might include getting more sleep, eating healthier foods and getting more exercise. However, for some it is to quit smoking and if this is you, I applaud you. It is a difficult habit to break and I would like to share an insight I had with a patient who wanted to quit smoking and possibly provide you with a piece of the puzzle to help you succeed.

A few years ago a patient of mine wanted to quit smoking and we discussed many avenues to help. By using acupuncture and herbs they embarked on a journey to kick the habit once and for all. Interestingly, in our many discussions, I realized why smoking is a habit that is so difficult to quit and what makes it a desirable outlet for someone who is stressed. Of course there is the nicotine that makes cigarettes addictive, but when you dig a little deeper, behaviours help to sustain the addiction. What exactly do I mean by behaviours you ask?

Let’s look at a typical situation:

You are at work and the workload is piling higher and higher creating more and more stress. You get to the point where the tension is getting to be too much and you say to your co-worker, “I’m going out for a cigarette.” After your cigarette break, you come back to the situation with stress a little more in check. What happened? Cigarettes act on the sympathetic system and accentuate the stress response, yet there is a sense of relaxation. Why?

When you stop and think about the above situation, although the cigarette heightens the stress response, all the behaviours associated with the situation elicit a relaxation response.

Lets break down the situation into its parts:

First, you have walked away from the stressful situation. Sometimes when under stress it is helpful to walk away from that stressful situation in order to get some perspective. Second, you are getting outside and getting some fresh air. By getting fresh air you are also clearing your head from the situation. Finally, and most importantly, what happens when a person smokes a cigarette? They take slow deep breaths… Slow deep breathing is the cornerstone of any relaxation technique and slow intentional breathing will bring about a relaxation response.

So after a cigarette, a person feels more relaxed not necessarily because of the cigarette itself, but because of the behaviours that go with the cigarette.

If you are a smoker who mainly smokes under stress and your intention is to quit this New Year, it becomes paramount to have other techniques in place to help bring relaxation without the cigarette in hand. Maybe instead of going for a “cigarette break”, go for a “fresh air break;” walk away from the situation, get some fresh air and take some slow deep breaths. Things like yoga, meditation, or other slow intentional breathing techniques could also be helpful. Regardless of the technique, awareness of when and why you smoke helps to bring you one step closer to quitting.

If your New Years resolution is to quit smoking I congratulate you! It can be a difficult habit to change, however with some guidance and perseverance you can succeed J. All the best in the coming year!